ExxonMobil Baton Rouge veers away from unions, United Steel Workers say

(This article is published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the July 22, 2013 edition.)

On a drive through Baton Rouge on Interstate 110, you've probably seen the sprawling ExxonMobil complex, containing a 502,000 barrel-per-day refinery and a chemical plant next to the Mississippi River. The refinery is the second largest in the nation, following the company's Baytown, Texas operation. Many employees at the Baton Rouge complex are well-paid United Steel Workers. But as older union members retire, ExxonMobil is hiring younger workers, often as contractors.

"Roughly a thousand of the total 3,800 employees at the company's refinery and chemical plant in Baton Rouge are represented by the USW union," Bob Landry, USW Local 13-12 spokesman, said last week. "Of these thousand union-represented workers, between 72 and 75 percent are members of Local 13-12. In recent years, however, the company has been hiring nonunion, contract employees at lower pay with less benefits." In the 1960s and 1970s, as many as 3,000 workers at the complex were represented by the union, and about 98 percent were dues-paying members, he said.

Landry retired in 2008 after 36 years at the Exxon Mobil Baton Rouge chemical plant, where he was an operator. He is a former president of Local 13-12 and former president of the Union Council of Exxon Mobil Employees of North America.

"Exxon Mobil Baton Rouge now employs contractors at the docks and the loading racks," Landry said. "Both of those were union-contract-represented, wage jobs in the past. And the company has hired lab technicians and mechanical workers--also union-represented jobs in the past--as contractors."

The average USW employee at the complex has been there 15 years and is paid $70,000 a year, the highest average salary ever, Landry said. Over two dozen employees at the complex are electricians and members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. More than a dozen security guards are members of another union.

Newly hired employees have a choice of whether to join a union or not, Landry said. "Louisiana is a right to work state, and no one has to pay union dues if they don't want to," he said.

Lynne Hancock, Pittsburgh-based spokeswoman for the USW, said not having to pay union dues weakens the union, which pays for services it provides to plant workers who don't contribute a dime. Under right to work laws, a union must represent every eligible employee, whether he or she pays dues.

"ExxonMobil is putting heat on unions, they're trying to diffuse union activities and ultimately to get rid of us," Landry said. The company hires relatives of employees who are anti-union, he said. "They set up union representatives for failure, citing problems on the job, and then they discipline and fire them. They've been fighting employees who have filed grievances." Last year, at its refinery in Baytown, Texas, ExxonMobil fired the president and vice president of the union local just before their contract bargaining was due to begin.

Today's young workers are concerned about job security. "They worry about losing their jobs," Landry said. "Exxon Mobil is hiring a lot of young people after older workers retired in the last five years. Many young people don't know about the history and the need for a union. And they saw what happened this year in Wisconsin, where public employees were stripped of collective bargaining rights."

Stephanie Cargile, public and government affairs manager at ExxonMobil Baton Rouge, last week said many employees at the company have reached retirement age. "Our hiring outlook for new employees is strong with about 75 to 100 new employees needed annually over the next few years," she said. "In Baton Rouge, we're seeing growth in several sectors, including pipefitting, welding and electrical crafts."

The company employs contractors to supplement its workforce. "We use a number of contractors to manage peak workloads," she said. "These additional workers are helpful during turnarounds, when we do equipment maintenance on site. Excluding turnarounds, however, we utilize fewer routine contractors than our own employee workforce."

At the Baton Rouge refinery and chemical complex, "the numbers of employees versus contractors have been about even for the last several years," she said.

In June of last year, Local 13-12 signed a three-year contract with ExxonMobil Baton Rouge after three months of negotiations. Talks under National Oil Bargaining, which sets wages, benefits and working conditions for contracts across the nation's oil industry, were thorny. "It wasn't a good experience," Landry said. "And we didn't get the full-time safety officer in Baton Rouge that we wanted in our contract."

Oil companies would rather not engage in National Oil Bargaining because NOB gives collective bargaining strength to the workers, Hancock of USW said. NOB talks occur nationally and locally at the same time, she said. When an agreement over wages, health care and working conditions is reached at the national bargaining table with the oil sector's "lead company," which was Shell Oil in the 2012 round of negotiations, that accord sets the pattern for the industry.

At the local level, "in last year's contract negotiations in Baton Rouge, ExxonMobil actively tried to pit workers against the union," Hancock said.

Landry weighed in on observations from the Environmental Protection Agency after it paid a surprise visit to the Baton Rouge refinery a year ago. EPA inspected the refinery from July 16 to 20, 2012 to see whether it complied with the Clean Air Act. A report issued by EPA, and obtained by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade under the Freedom of Information Act in February, said the refinery contained heavily corroded pipes and ruptured pipelines; pipes and other equipment that were overdue for internal inspection; and inadequate documentation for emergency and shutdown procedures.

Landry said the Baton Rouge refinery looks more worn than it used to. "In the 1980s, ExxonMobil Baton Rouge and petrochemical plants across the country had painters everywhere," he said. "They scraped paint and repainted, and made everything inside the plant look good." He said that was part of a quality drive started by Japanese companies in the1950s, under the instruction of U.S. industrial expert Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Quality initiatives were adopted by American manufacturers in the 1980s.

"In the 1980s, the goals were to make the inside of a plant look good and to turn out products that met 99.9 percent of specifications," Landry said. But in the 1990s, that push for perfection was considered too expensive, and cost control became more important to ExxonMobil and other companies.

Photos from the EPA's refinery inspection a year ago show external rust on pipes, Landry said. "But what's more important is internal corrosion," he said. "It's hard to quantify the extent to which pipes at the Baton Rouge refinery are corroded and thin."

EPA said ExxonMobil didn't adequately document the minimum number of personnel required to handle emergency procedures.

"The refinery cut a lot of operations jobs in the 1990s," Landry said. "We thought they cut too many. The plant hasn't had enough people since. Operations are lean so ExxonMobil can save money."

In 2011, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the Baton Rouge plant didn't have enough workers for an emergency shutdown, Landry said. "But ExxonMobil appealed and OSHA dropped the charge," he said.

Regarding that charge, USW in a Feb. 28, 2013 statement said OSHA had cited ExxonMobil Baton Rouge--following OSHA's inspection of the site on May 12, 2011--for not having the minimal staff to shut down a specific unit during an emergency. "However, the company negotiated away the citation," USW said.

As for safety, "you could go for years and nothing much happens, but then something big happens," Landry said. "The complex contains volatile chemicals and heavy equipment so there's a built-in possibility that someone might get hurt. Like when you're driving down the road, something could occur at any moment. You stay alert in the plant but you try to be comfortable."

In 1993, three people were killed in a coker fire at the refinery, and two workers died after an explosion rocked the refinery on Christmas Eve 1989. In the 1989 accident, windows were shattered downtown and aftershocks were felt miles away.

According to ExxonMobil Baton Rouge, employees and contractors are engaged in a number of safety initiatives. All workers meet every Wednesday to review safety standards, trends and improvement projects, Cargile said. Each department sponsors employee-led safety committees so that workers can raise concerns and address common issues.

The Baton Rouge refinery spends $30 million annually on equipment inspections, and over a hundred trained personnel work on those inspections every year, Cargile said. "The inspection of piping, pressure vessels, tanks and other equipment includes use of technologies like ultrasonic thickness measurements, radiography and dye penetrant testing," she said. A schedule based on risk is used to guide inspections.

Landry discussed the refinery's considerable presence in the region. Standard Oil opened a refinery at the current East Baton Rouge site in 1909, and the city grew up around it, he said. "Standard Oil turned into ExxonMobil in the last century," he said. In late 1999, Exxon and Mobil joined to form ExxonMobil Corp.

"Many employees used to live in neighboring Standard Heights and Dixie, and they walked or biked to their jobs," Landry said. "But they began moving away in the 1960s during white flight and suburbanization." Neighboring communities have gotten smaller, and they're lower income now, he said.

"In the late 1980s and 1990s, ExxonMobil bought out a lot of home owners and it established green zones with trees around the plant," Landry said. "Most people who wanted to sell their homes did then. Now the community is mainly holdouts, or homeowners who haven't wanted to leave, and renters."

Under the Baton Rouge complex Greenbelt Program, started in 1988, property is purchased at prices based on certified appraisals, Cargile at ExxonMobil said. "This is a voluntary program and some neighbors have chosen to remain in their homes."

Residents staying rooted next to the complex face hazards. Last month, Smith Stag, LLC in New Orleans filed a class action suit on behalf of ten African American, Standard Heights residents and seven minor children, affected by a June 14, 2012 chemical leak at ExxonMobil's aromatics production unit.

The company employs a few people from Standard Heights and Dixie but they're mostly contractors, Landry said. The two communities are mainly African American. He said ExxonMobil has to follow the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's affirmative action guidelines so that it can't discriminate by race and ethnicity in hiring.

As for the status of Local 13-12, "the union is talking with young employees about why they should join," Landry said. "ExxonMobil really tried to undermine us last year. We want to get our membership back up ahead of our next contract negotiations in 2015."

Landry said ExxonMobil is a big bully. "They're responsible for complying with the Clean Air Act but they don't want to answer to anyone," he said. "They have lots of high-paid lawyers and the best public relations people and spokesmen money can buy."

Last fall, ExxonMobil announced a planned $215 million expansion at its chemical plant in Baton Rouge and its lubricants plant in Port Allen, and said construction should be finished next year. end